Befitting its British setting, Wild Rose is something of a fairy tale. A cleaning woman with a voice that could charm a squirrel is given a chance to prove her mettle by a wealthy benefactor and elevate her status, potentially becoming wealthy and respected herself. However, the protagonist in this fairy tale is a reckless felon, frequently hung-over and running in between appointments all while her mother takes care of her barely-acknowledged children back home. Rose isn’t wholly likable, as she waits until her oldest child is 8 to even consider becoming a full parent. What’s holding her back aren’t the limitations of her ability but the path that was set out for her when she was a teenager. The tension of the film is created by Rose pulling towards the life she dreams for herself and her life as it presently exists, a life of notoriety against a life of familial safety and presence. A happily ever after for Rose isn’t going to be as tidy as success at the Grand Ole Opry.
The film further leans into its British roots by gently scoffing at the expected ending of movies with similar premises. Any time a striver is depicted onscreen, the have-it-all ending is immediately conjured, and films that don’t fulfill such an ending become immediately more memorable. Wild Rose appears to be going down this path thanks to the sheer ferocity of its lead, especially when she gets back to performing. Rose has a tattoo defining her chosen art form as ‘three chords and the truth,’ and while country music might be as simple as that, success isn’t doled out to everyone who can strum out an affecting with only a stool and guitar. For Rose, the truth is found in her passion for performing, strutting across the stage and easily commanding the attention of whatever sized room she’s singing in. Buckley knows a thing or two about stage presence and Wild Rose convinces the viewer that she could be a credible star, but when the film does finally move to Nashville, we see that a compliment of one-in-a-million means there are still hundreds just like the recipient of that compliment. Talent is only the beginning for Rose’s dream, and Wild Rose has grounded questions about the kind of sacrifices necessary to see if one’s talent can break through.
Similar to Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown, Wild Rose flatters an American audience by worshipping an American art form. When a traveling American has rarely had more of a reason to deny the place of their birth, there’s something heartwarming about seeing Europeans of any stripe connect themselves to a non-coastal part of the US. However, no American film would consider class to this extent, a theme that travels in the British bloodstream as ubiquitously as the false denial of class travels in the American one. In Wild Rose, success for success’ sake just isn’t something to be considered: there’s ultimately a settled complacency to the film that would seem a defeat on one side of the Atlantic but not at all on the other. Striving that turns into settling is a small-c conservative outcome that feels rare in movies but exactly right in Wild Rose.
Harper’s film is a tear-jerking crowd-pleaser that is relatively unique amongst its genre mates, elevated by what it is and by what it isn’t. Buckley makes Rose into a prickly and ultimately endearing character with skin as thick as her Scottish brogue, and it’s a pleasure to watch her at her best and at her not-so-best. This is Inside Llewyn Davis without the melancholy, Once without the interpersonal romance. That’s not to say that Wild Rose surpasses those film, but that it joyously stands alongside them. A-